HomeMoviesSXSW Review: 'American Animals' Channels Classic Heist Films to Find its Voice

SXSW Review: ‘American Animals’ Channels Classic Heist Films to Find its Voice

American Animals
Photo Credit: Sundance

Whether Bart Layton’s American Animals will become an American classic will take a few years to know. One thing is certain, though, it sure remembers other classics to sell its unorthodox approach. But one has to wonder, beneath the inventive genre-bending storytelling, is this less than the sum of its parts or does it reflect something more?

Whatever the case, Layton makes it immediately known this is a story you’ve never seen a story like this or how it’s presented. It’s both based on a true story, and not based on real events as a title card jokes. There’s a long history of unreliable narrators, but nothing like American Animals.

This story, in fact, did happen, the characters have real-life counterparts told through an alternating perspective of a mockumentary and a documentary, pinning down the real story is impossible. Everyone has their own truth or confession. Scenes often repeat themselves after characters tell different accounts of the same moment.

The contrasting views certainly become the centerpiece of the film. Not only do they hold an inventive atmosphere but also allow the talented ensemble to essentially give two performances. As the ringleader, Warren (Evan Peters) has one view of himself and Spencer (Barry Keoghan) and vice versa. When Chas (Blake Jenner) and Eric (Jared Abrahamson) get tossed into the mix to plot a heist of the world’s most expensive book in Transylvania University, identities and events further blur. The only clarity that cutting to the “real” version of each of the characters is that there is no certainty of what’s going on, who’s real and what’s fake.

By the time the final act comes to lift the veil halfway, it feels like a bit of a cop-out. All of the time spent with the multiple unreliable narrators provided enough to question what really happened. The decision to have one last “gotcha” moment hits the nail on the head. It’s impressive in the moment but could have been better overall allowing the audience to consider what happened wasn’t what actually happened. Or at least, not how one or two characters recall it.

Still, what comes before the questionable ending has phenomenal moments and allows its main ensemble career moments. Peters has become synonymous with American Horror Story and its crazed leaders but rarely has he been as frenetic as he is during the crazy heist decked out in old man makeup. He’s only upended by Jenner who’s given a few moments of pure rage previously unseen from him. Conversely, Keoghan dials back his Killing of a Sacred Deer performance to turn into a quiet and gullible artist while Abrahamson’s turn as the calculating and contemplative heist member is a strong equal as are Layton’s own imitations.

As his feature debut, Layton’s style has room to develop but it’s clear he knows his way around an editing room and camera rig. Just as Warren has a stack of classic heist movies, Layton’s aesthetic jumps from Edgar Wright whip pans and quick cuts, Quentin Tarantino’s structure (complete with Reservoir Dog code names), and even takes on meta moments seemingly inspired by Rififi and The French Connection. All stitched together, it’s a wholly unique experience despite being reminiscent of films already established in the heist lexicon. All that’s missing is a Michael Mann homage.

However inconsistent it may be, its heart still shines through contemplating the role of art and its psychological and economic impact on society.

Overall Grade: 6.5 out of 10

American Animals is currently in limited release.


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